Friend or Foe? Science and the Media

Ella Barnett | July 20, 2018

The world has always relied on science to function. Renewable energy, medical breakthroughs, technology expansion – it’s all science baby! Seriously, science runs the world…from behind the scenes. It is the media that is currently front and center. Media, especially visual media, is how people choose to be informed, it is the majority of the information that  people consume.

Science has always had a problem with media. This is not news. The typical science stereotype is over-intelligent and unapproachable with a lot of long words and complex math. If people traditionally prefer attention-grabbing headlines over nuanced scientific papers, it’s no wonder that the media so often miscommunicates science

But communicating science effectively is essential. In our current U S of A where facts are considered alternative and emotions are ranked higher than evidence, science needs to have a strong voice. Therefore, the Silbersalz Conference facilitated a meeting of minds. Journalists, scientists, filmmakers and storytellers were able to come together and discuss their own experiences and thoughts in relation to communicating science. That’s what Silbersalz specifically focused on; giving science a voice through media. Allowing science to stand up and take the spotlight. Aka, what we at ReAgency are all about.

Our CEO, Jayde Lovell, was invited to both speak at the Conference, and host an expert workshop on scientific storytelling, and I was lucky enough to get to tag along. Located in Halle (Saale), Germany, the Silbersalz Conference was an insightful meeting of the minds that brought to focus the communication issues between science and media and generated a meaningful and open conversation.

“We strive to make scientific content more visible and accessible. For that, film is probably the most emotionally engaging of all mediums” – Caroline Wichmann, Head of Press and PR, German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina.

Over a two day period, we absorbed presentations and panel discussions, before regrouping into expert workshops for a deeper dive into specific areas. We discussed everything from YouTube channels, to big budget films, documentaries to virtual reality (VR), and how these platforms can be used to promote an engagement with science. Dr Katrin Regan-nitsche reported that 40% of the wider population wanted to be involved with science in some way or other. So how do we give them access? The interest is there, how can we harness it?

The answer: Stories. Narratives… Essentially: science storytelling. The positive and accurate portrayal of who we are as a scientific community, what we do, and the impact science has upon everyday life. The trick: to tell stories in an engaging way. The issue: sometimes this means we have to flirt with fiction to generate interest.

This tends to be a huge point of contention for scientists, and rightly so. We’re trained to get accurate and factual information through a rigorous scientific process and we do not want to compromise or misrepresent the results in any way. Often this is seen as anything less than a full explanation of the study – which most regular people just won’t tolerate. If we can’t communicate effectively, how will our science be as useful as possible? Is it worth doing a little fiction-flirting to get your point across to your audience? For me, the answer is yes. Once you have someone hooked, you’re in a much better position to be able to impart more accurate information, but until you have them on your line, you’ll be hard pressed to get your message through. As Walt Disney famously said:

“I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.”

In the next week, I’ll have a new article up that explores what I learnt at Silbersalz. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, if any of you have any opinions about how science is, or should be, presented in the media, please comment below!